The president of Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Peter L. Slavin, plans to step down after 18 years leading the powerful and prestigious institution, amid a broad restructuring at its parent company.
Slavin’s announcement Wednesday came as a surprise to many in health care, business, and political circles, and his exit will mark the end of an era for MGH as it works more closely with its sister institution, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Slavin plans to stay at MGH — consistently ranked among the top hospitals in the country — until his successor arrives, after a search process that could take months.
He first came to MGH as a medical student nearly 40 years ago and has overseen a period of significant growth and an array of new clinical and research initiatives as hospital president. He told the Globe that he finalized his decision to leave over the last month, and has not yet explored new job opportunities.
With the COVID-19 crisis beginning to wane, the hospital preparing to expand with a new tower, and its parent company, Mass General Brigham, working to become a more integrated health care system, Slavin said he is ready to move on.
“There is never a good time to leave,” said Slavin, 63, who is known as a thoughtful and unflappable leader. “This is probably as good a time as ever. It’s a good time to have a new captain of the ship.”
His announcement comes just a month after the departure of Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Nabel as president of the Brigham. Dr. Timothy Ferris, president of the MGH physician group and the hospital’s second highest-ranking official, is also leaving his post.
MGH and the Brigham are the anchors of Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest hospital system. The company, which until last year was known as Partners HealthCare, is in the midst of a sweeping effort to work as a unified health system, which includes shifting power from its famed hospitals and doctors to the corporate office. The aggressive plan aims to stem internal competition among the hospitals, and it spans every corner of the organization, from administrative work to the way patients receive care.
Hospital presidents at Mass General Brigham no longer have the autonomy to launch big projects on their own; instead those decisions are made at the system level, under Dr. Anne Klibanski, the company’s chief executive.
The integration plan has upset many veteran physicians and leaders, and several are leaving for other jobs.
Slavin has not publicly criticized the effort. On a Zoom call with the Globe, which also included MGH board chairman Jonathan Kraft — a key proponent of integration — Slavin said he supports the strategy.
“There’s a lot of important work that needs to happen to figure out how this clinical integration is going to work across the system,” he said. “It makes sense to have someone else take the reins and work on this in the long term.”
“A change would be not only good for the organization, but good for me as well,” he said.
When the coronavirus emerged last year, Slavin went on national television to issue a grave warning about the severity of the pandemic, comparing it to fighting a war.
Former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh frequently turned to Slavin during the COVID crisis, and Slavin’s expertise helped the mayor make decisions about business closures, testing sites, and vaccination clinics, Walsh said in an interview.
“I called him a lot. I’d ask him . . . where we are in the pandemic, what is he hearing on the ground,” said Walsh, now the US labor secretary.
“It’s sad,” he said of Slavin’s departure. “We’re losing a professional, a good person, and somebody who cares deeply about the city.”
Slavin’s family has a long history with MGH — his great-grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, once received care at the hospital — and his devotion to the institution is well known.
“He was able to continue and strengthen MGH’s long legacy,” said Dr. Kevin Tabb, chief executive of Beth Israel Lahey Health.
Nearly all of Slavin’s professional life has been at MGH, except from 1997 to 1999, when he was president of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He was a primary care physician at MGH, served as chief medical officer, and ran the physician organization before becoming hospital president in 2003.
Slavin is also a board director at Amwell, a Boston-based telehealth company that has grown rapidly during the pandemic. Boston hospital chiefs who serve on corporate boards were the subject of a Globe Spotlight report last weekend into potential conflicts of interest. Slavin said his work at Amwell didn’t factor into his decision to leave MGH.
At the hospital, Slavin received $2.4 million in total compensation in 2018, the most recent year for which information is available.
MGH, the largest private employer in Boston with a workforce of 28,000, has grown substantially during Slavin’s tenure.
In 2003, the hospital collected $1.9 billion in revenue; last year it was $5.5 billion. The research budget has more than doubled in that time to more than $1 billion. Outpatient visits, too, have more than doubled to 1.7 million per year.
Despite the competitive nature of health care in Boston, Slavin has maintained friendships with chiefs of rival institutions, including Tabb and Kate Walsh, chief executive of Boston Medical Center.
Walsh (who is not related to the former mayor) recalled that in the early weeks of the pandemic, she was searching for remdesivir, before that antiviral drug became a standard part of COVID treatment.
MGH had doses of the drug; BMC did not. Walsh figured: “If MGH has some, I know he’ll get it for me. There was never a question in my mind that if Peter could possibly help, he would.”
Kraft, who befriended Slavin at Harvard Business School 33 years ago, credited Slavin’s work to advance safe patient care, community health, and groundbreaking medical research.
Slavin has been a quiet but forceful leader, said Kraft, who is president of the Kraft Group and the New England Patriots: “When he talks, the words really matter. He’s thoughtful, he’s not knee-jerk.”
Klibanski — who previously worked for Slavin and became his boss in 2019 — said he frequently walks around the hospital conversing with staff and patients.
“It’s a quiet, confident, thoughtful, compassionate style,” she said. “It’s a very effective style.”
A search committee will look nationally for a new MGH president, Klibanski said. Meanwhile, a search process for the next Brigham and Women’s president has begun; Dr. Sunil Eappen, the Brigham’s chief medical officer, is serving as its interim president.
Slavin’s colleagues note his focus on longstanding health inequities, which have became more visible during the pandemic. He supported new initiatives at MGH focused on gun violence prevention and immigrant and refugee health.
He also green-lighted new research centers, including the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, which studies the immune system’s role in curing and preventing disease.
Slavin is close with high-flying executives and politicians, but he also mingles with cafeteria staff and security officers, said Larry Washington, an MGH police officer for 42 years.
“He leads by example. Whatever he does, everybody follows,” Washington said.
“He’s the type of guy who comes in on a Saturday afternoon with his sneakers on, and you wouldn’t know it was him until he says hi to you.”